Sunday 16 April 2023

HoNK Rules! A General Outline

Last post I talked about problems of tone, and intimated that my ruleset-in-progress would have some mechanics to evoke some aspects of tone. But as noted, to satisfactorily explain that I need to lay out some of the basics.


So my initial thinking has undergone some hefty evolution since the early posts I put up with regard to a rule set. I've settled - hopefully for good - on skill mechanic that uses a "nd6" model (where n equals the difficulty of a task). When testing for success on a task, the PC must roll equal to or under the appropriate Attribute, using however many six-sided dice indicated by the Degree of Difficulty. Generally, Attributes range from 5-19, averaging 10 at first level and most tasks have DD of 3, so that should give some idea as to the broad outline of the skill mechanic. I'll elaborate further on each element of the rules in upcoming posts.

Attributes, in this final incarnation are what many games call 'Abilities' or 'Stats' or whatnot. because attributes provide the base target number for success or failure, I've settled for 13 of them to guarantee a certain amount of flexibility. I won't explain them here, but they are as follows, generated using a 3 + 2d6 procedure: Strength-ST, Dexterity-DX, Presence-PR, Fellowship-FE, Piety-PY, Receptivity-RC, Knowledge-KN, Perception-PE, Appearance-AP, Health-HH, Concentration-CN, Intuition-IN plus LUCK (which is always 3d6 neat). Some attributes are expressed during combat as a combat modifier, equivalent to the attribute -10.

Combat is treated differently: the attacker rolls 2d6, adds (and subtracts) appropriate modifiers, and, if achieving a positive number, gets to roll Vitality damage as per their mode of attack (there's more to it, but that's the gist), and has a chance of causing a wound. I want combat to be reasonably quick, but also quite nasty - not to be taken lightly.

I'm still sticking with the Aptitudes (these were mentioned in a couple of older posts, but in the context of Labyrinth Lord, and that information has been superseded, and I deleted). The Aptitudes are one of the keys to hitting the tone I spoke of last time. Others are Temperament (an expansion of the four humours) and Alignment. I know plenty of people don't like Alignments very much, but I'm rather fond of them, and judiciously used, they provide a sort of metonymic shorthand for a character's relationship with the cosmos - and by extension with the doomed world of Verkhun, so they stay in, in more or less the form you find in most 'Advanced'-style OSR games (and, of course, modern iterations).

Another item in the roleplaying toolbox is that of Allegiance: this is for the player to define (within some limits: Clerics must have an Allegiance to their Deity as one of their primary motivators, but how that Allegiance is manifested in thought, word and deed is fairly open, as long as they follow doctrine. Different deities have different standards for this sort of thing, of course).

I'll go into detail about these 'tone' - or 'feel' aspects in an upcoming post.

Other elements of the game are much like the general ruck of OSR-type games: Classes and Lineages are a thing, and magic, though not Vancian, functions in more or less the same way (although success is never guaranteed, as a Spell Roll is required). Pushing the bounds of reality in such an unstable environment is dangerous: magic is morally, mentally and biologically corrosive, unless the energies manipulated are confined by expensive, time-consuming procedures (that remain risky, nonetheless). Clerics and their ilk are protected from this risk however: they act through prayers - which are not spells, although formally they resemble them. Clerical prayers are heavily limited by deity 'portfolio', and do not, for the most part, have the reach and range of Magic.

Anyway, that's the basic outline of the rules as they stand right now. Next post on all of this will give more detail on what I call the Roleplaying Triad (which is silly, as it really has more than three factors, but I handwave that by smooshing some of them together).

Finding the Right Tone: an Appendix N of One's Own

So, I should start at the outset: my first, and most enduring take on fantasy comes from Tolkien. I devoured his work (The Hobbit, LOTR, The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales) when I was about 9 or 10, and probably didn't understand half of what I read, but what I do remember is the sense of gravity, lament, of the incredible enduring weight of loss that the books carried. The Elves, Dunedain and Dwarves bore this most heavily, of course, but it ran through everything I read (that this was the most impressive and enduring element no doubt speaks as much to my personal temperament as to authorial intent and craft, but that's rather the point).

Having gobbled up Tolkien, I read Narnia, the early Shannara booksthe Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and then moved on to Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising  sequence; Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain; Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath; Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books and Katharine Kerr's Deverry books. Eventually, I got to the Osten Ard books by Tad Williams, the Wheel of Time series (a marathon unlike any other; one remains uncertain of the outcome), Steven Brust's Khaavren and Vlad Taltos books and Elizabeth Moon's Paksennarion series. 

Most of these books carried just as much weight as those of Tolkien, if expressed differently - some didn't: I don't know if anyone would seriously advance the claims of Shannara in such a regard. However, not all of them would make my Appendix N - and many of them don't contribute very much. Mostly, they are a sort of subterranean contributor to the mythology of the New Kingdoms, and, most importantly for the purposes of this discussion - to the tone or 'feel' of the New Kingdoms (thus, Centaurs in Verkhun take their primary inspiration from CS Lewis' Narnian astrologer/warrior/healers, rather than the bibulous wild folk of other mythoi).

At the core, the world of Verkhun (of which the New Kingdoms are but one part, if the most richly detailed in game terms), has seen much better days. It has, quite literally, been torn in two by the disaster of Shroudfall, and is held in its current state of slowly degrading stability by an unfathomably massive investment of deific power. It is a world far fallen from what it was (although this is not some tale of the Fall - it was far from perfect before Shroudfall), and it is on a trajectory of ultimate destruction - an apocalypse of utter totality when the severed "halves" of the planet collapse back into one (not quite halves: the split is about 65%/35%).

Of course, in-game, few actually know this, and even fewer believe, and of that very small group, most have succumbed to madness of various kinds. Most folk live their lives even as we do, struggling, striving, scheming - one might say they are fiddling while Rome burns. PCs can strive, and even thrive in this world on borrowed time. But the tone of loss, and lamentation pervades (or should pervade) the moral and metaphysical fabric of the world. This constant sense of living with diminution is a hard thing to carry over into gameplay. I can - with a certain amount of effort, and dubious success - convey some of this through roleplaying or when writing some piece of lore for the players, but how does one get player buy-in? Should I even care? It's their fun, after all. 

I've been tossing around some possible mechanics for use in the setting, but they're quite closely tied in with the HoNK ruleset I've been cobbling together, rather than any other system, so to outline those, I guess I'll have to lay out them. More Heartbreaker posts pending, I guess...

Wednesday 12 April 2023

Trying to Make use of A Long-Running Gripe

Something of a cri de Coeur today. I don't generally mention my own campaign on this blog (currently RMFRP, with a bunch of outright scoundrels working hard against the good and the true!), as it's primary influence comes in the generation of content. However, the campaign - sporadic sessions as we try to coordinate across five cities and two time zones - has been weighing heavily on the mind of late. There are several considerations: with sessions seemingly ever harder to organise (everyone has busy lives, and families - and I have been the chief offender in begging off sessions, due mainly to work issues), the campaign seems to stumble and lag. Storylines are hard to maintain, and come to seem somehow pointless when averaging a few hours every 3-6 weeks. Intensity is hard to generate.

Also, RMFRP is a great system, but clunky when play is so infrequent and playing time at a premium. Consulting charts becomes a grind that distracts from the genuine guts of the story, and if someone dies...the player better have a plausible backup character ready to go...

The problem is mostly that my players are keen Rolemaster players: experimentation in the general direction of other systems, like Labyrinth Lord, Pathfinder (1e) and even the old World of Darkness game Mage seem to strike very few sparks. They also don't want to take the time to learn new systems (which is fair enough: that brings its own time costs).

I've tried to think of various ways around this problem. I probably can't - and shouldn't - expect people to just pick up a new system because I'm bored and frustrated. Even though I'd really like to switch to something quick and clean and OSR-ish, I don't see it taking place. I'm still cobbling together my own ruleset - which probably won't be called Tales of the New Kingdoms, now that Kobold Press have rechristened their 5e-ish project "Tales of the Valiant" (one does wish they'd kept the "Black Flag" moniker). Maybe Heroes of the New Kingdoms ("HoNK" for short...)?

So, system issues notwithstanding, I'm thinking of being more sandboxy - with more use of hexcrawls and possibly a megadungeon, and relying more upon tables to save prep time. Fortunately, there's an absolute galaxy of material out there to do this. I'm just not sure what the best system might be to make things progress quickly. Perhaps Rolemaster Classic? the new RMU? Lightmaster? or maybe Blood & Treasure, the game I'd most like to run. (I keep seeing recommendations for games like Old School Essentials, but, for whatever reason, it just leaves me cold). The other possibility I'm a bit more enthused about is For Gold & Glory (I seem to have knack for liking - and wanting to write content for - systems not many people play, such as B&T, or are well-supported with lots of legacy content, like PF 1e, OSRIC or FG&G, which have the whole body of work made for older editions to draw upon).

The other thing here is that Railroads (big story arcs) are a lot of work - maintaining a railroad is hard, and you're constantly tweaking events to keep things "in-story", and the reward is disproportionate for the work you put in when sessions are so infrequent - revelations lose their impact, suspense drizzles away, and you rush things that ought reasonably require more attention.

Enough gripes! Looking at ideas for a megadungeon, I'm dusting off an old idea about three imprisoned Godlings, buried in the bowels of the earth, bound by the unfathomable power of the Ward Perpetual, a shield of living crystal, fed by divine energy focused through a great crystal 'tree' whose roots sustain the Ward.

The three Bound Ones can not affect the world above, but the sheer force of their horrific natures and their desire for freedom causes a form of eldritch 'seepage' up through the earth, three columns of tainted energy pushing up in search of servants, slaves and proxies. This moral poison has now reached the deepest strata of ancient delvings, beneath the high mountain where the Ward-Tree is found...causing both an expansion and corruption of the subterranean realms found there.

At the higher levels, very little of this is apparent, but in the deeps, it is another matter. Progress is slow, however, for the Ward endures, although slowly decaying due to lack of maintenance from above and the efforts of Bound Ones below.

I envisage this base storyline as a sort of meta-plot or species of background radiation: it is there, and very influential, but at several removes, for the most part. The players could take or leave as much of the base conflict as they wish. Much (most?) of what goes on in the upper levels is not directly related at all: it would be mostly factional strife, leavened with a bit of 'imperialism' from above (servants of the Tree) and below (servants of the Bound Ones).

Comments by readers on this blog are rather infrequent, but any input people would care to give (with regard to systems or the megadungeon idea), would be appreciated.

Wolves of War: The Ulfarga for Blood & Treasure (& RMFRP)

  Ulfarga (Lupine Beastkin) Wild-hearted but honourable wolf-like humanoids, Ulfarga represent one of the largest populations of any Beastki...